Awake: Volume 2 — The Music of Don Cherry

Order on Shifting Paradigm Records

Don Cherry – The Eternal Troubadour

By John Kruth

Years ago, I had a friend named Robin Kornman. A Jewish butterball originally from New Orleans with a shock of black hair, Robin had an infectious giggle, and was a brilliant guy on many levels. Teaching English at the University of Wisconsin, as well as meditation at the local Shambala Center in Milwaukee, Robin worked as a personal secretary to Chogyam Trunga Rinpoche for fifteen years. Google him if you don’t know. You might thank me later. Either way the man was a fount of “Crazy Wisdom.”Speaking a handful of languages, Robin translated Rinpoche’s speeches and correspondence, as well as the epic poem of King Gesar from the original Tibetan text. Robin loved music, mostly classical stuff. I learned a lot about Schubert, Mahler and Bartok from him, while I hipped him to the magic of Mingus, Monk and Ornette. He also had a great sense of humor and a serious crush on Sarah Michelle Gellar, AKA “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.”

   As a Buddhist, Robin had great respect for lineage and always wanted to know the history of the music – who was influenced by whom. This wasn’t just typical baseball card stuff – like how many strikeouts, RBIs, and homeruns somebody had scored. Nor was it an obsession with minutia, like so many jazz and rock fans are possessed with. Robin connected with the music on a spiritual level. That’s why, when my fifth album, Last Year Was A Great Day was released in 1998, I was initially hurt by his response. “Wow, that sounds just like the Beatles!” he enthused. “Oh great,” I sneered. “All these years of making music and I’m still getting compared to the Fabs!” He glared at me and snapped, “You’re a victim of incorrect thinking! The fact that anyone ever breathes your name in the same breath as the Beatles is a blessing! They opened the door for you and so many others! They hoisted you up on their shoulders. You should be thankful, instead of resentful of such a comment!” His words hit me like a lightning bolt. He was right, of course. Afterall, I loved the Beatles (Still do!). And the fact that he linked my music with some of the most transcendental, joyous sounds of the Twentieth Century was, in retrospect, rather sweet and generous on his part. “Also, if you can stand a compliment, that flute solo you played reminded me a bit of Yusef Lateef…”

   That aloof “I got here by myself” routine is the primarily the domain of sullen teenagers, not wanting to admit mom or dad drove them to the party, cause they don’t own a car or haven’t gotten their license yet. Yet none of us, in fact, got here on our own. We are all lineage holders, whether as writers, artists, musicians or, simply DNA sherpas. 

   So, what’s this got to do with Don Cherry? Well, everything, I think… Don was connected to a few different lineages, from which he drew a plethora of cool, refreshing sounds from the deep, mysterious well of inspiration.      

   Born in Oklahoma City, of Choctaw and African American ancestry, Don was raised in the Watts section of Los Angeles and began working professionally by the time he was sixteen, playing in local big bands and even backing the Platters for a gig. 

   Although best known as a trumpeter, Cherry loved the piano and was obsessed with creating chordal permutations. “He started off as a piano player and had his own group in Watts in the early fifties, playing dance concerts,” Don’s son, David Ornette Cherry recalled.

   Whether joyous or reverent, Don Cherry was above all, filled with wonder, fueled by passion, and possessed a deep love and respect music of every style, from every corner of the globe. His curiosity for new sounds knew no bounds. 

   “Don was like the pied piper. He was magic! You would follow him anywhere,” imparted Verna Gillis, former director of the New York club Soundscape, and ethno-musicologist, who made field recordings for the Folkways and Lyrichord labels. 

   Verna also sang on the title track of Cherry’s 1975 album, Brown Rice: “I was really honored he asked me. Don was always very generous, bringing younger and unknown musicians into his projects. Don had such big ears,” she marveled. “You could land him anywhere in the world and he could find his way into the music. Some people say he played ‘World music?’ I hate that term. It’s all world music! I call it ‘Trans-Genre.’ That’s where the music is today!”

   “Don was an amazing human being that did so much for jazz and African music,” recalled Hassan Hakmoun. “He was the first jazz musician to collaborate with the Gnawa and helped this music to be recognized around the world.”    

   The old cliché bebop lifestyle of hard living as epitomized by Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Charles Mingus, by the mid-60s seemed suddenly just that – old, as living healthy became the new thing. Everybody was now headed for the juice bar rather than getting juiced.  

   Originally published in 1971, Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet quickly became the go-to bible for those seeking an alternative to the three squares/meat and potato routine that America raised a new generation of baby boomers on. And Don Cherry, who’d already done plenty of hard living, not only adopted a new vegetarian diet but found great inspiration in Buddhist mantra, which he enthusiastically intoned, both as a musical vibration and message of peace. 

   The chanting “Om mani padme hum,” or “The Six True Words” as they are known, is said to relive the world’s suffering, while cultivating compassion, and bringing enlightenment to the practitioner. As Lhamo Thondup, the 14th Dalai Lama explains, the mantra will “transform your impure body, speech and mind into the pure body, speech and mind of a Buddha.”

   “Even though he was just getting on board with mantra, Don would use it in his concerts,” percussionist/composer Adam Rudolph told me. Cherry, in fact used mantra as the foundation for many compositions on a pair of mid-seventies albums – Brown Rice (1975) and Hear & Now (1976) reflecting his new-found interest in Tibetan Buddhism.

   This was message music, much like George Harrison’s 1970 chart-topping hit “My Sweet Lord” which cleverly threaded the Hare Krishna maha-mantra into its catchy sing-along chorus or Bob Marley and the Wailer’s funky, irresistible reggae which carried the Rastafarian creed to all corners of the globe.  

   Don’s peers and contemporaries recognized him as the true embodiment the itinerant griot, bringing new sounds and spreading the word wherever he went. “While Yusef [Lateef] was very studious, Don actually picked up and went to all these places and immersed himself in the culture,” Rudolph pointed out. “Mtume [percussionist with Miles Davis] told me Don’s nickname was always ‘The Traveler.’ His openness went hand in hand with his humility and perspective that music comes from something greater than ourselves. Remember, Don had played with Ornette, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Albert Ayler. Then he’d travel to India and humble himself as a complete beginner in Indian music to study voice and tabla with Pandit Pran Nath [also a major influence on Terry Riley and LaMonte Young].” 

   “I thought Don played beautifully with Ornette,” trumpeter Bobby Bradford said. “He had those lines down, so when they played together it was two peas in a pod. Don understood how to move about without any kind of chord sequence. The only battle Don ever had was, like a lot of other players, the physicality of the trumpet.  When they got to New York, they really shook up the water. The status quo was thinkin’ now what the hell is this shock wave? What can I do to stay on top? They didn’t know if, or how long it was gonna last.”

   Bobby moved from Dallas to LA in the early 50s and lived with his mother until getting a job at Bullocks’ Department Store when he, “met this guy on the streetcar one day, coming from South Central. It was Ornette and he remembered me [from their early days of jamming together in Texas] and asked me to come to his place and rehearse his tunes. This was the late summer and fall of 1953. He was tryin’ to get gigs and sittin’ in around town like everybody else.  

   Sometimes he’d get gigs in the redlight district in downtown LA known as the redlight district, down around 5th Street, which black folks used to call “The Nickel.”  And that’s where I ran into Don Cherry. There were five or six places around town where, on Monday and Wednesday nights you could jam. One place near Central Avenue and 28th Street, a beer joint called Armand’s had a lot of Latinos and blacks they had jam sessions on Wednesday nights, and I remember seeing Don there. We had a little trumpet talk and I’d run into Eric Dolphy… There was a club called the Tip Top which I played at sometimes with Don, sometimes with Ornette. Don was a real student of harmony. I never saw him play piano, but I remember him transcribing a piece by Thelonious Monk. He loved Monk’s music. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie too. But like most of us he was really struck by what Ornette was doing and tried to work that into his playing. I don’t think any of us realized the impact that Ornette was gonna have because he was getting a lot of resistance around LA.”

   Following his groundbreaking stint at the Five Spot with the Coleman quartet in 1959, Cherry joined forces with Sonny Rollins, recording East Broadway Rundown for Impulse, collaborating with John Coltrane for one album on Atlantic – The Avant-Garde* as well as Albert Ayler, Pharaoh Sanders, Gato Barbieri and Steve Lacy. 

   When it came to improvised music, the late/great soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy believed “the key figure was Don Cherry… He didn’t worry about all that stuff Ornette was worrying about,” he told guitarist/author Derek Bailey. After jamming with the revolutionary trumpeter in 1959 Lacy became a Free Jazz devotee. 

   “It happened in gradual stages,” Lacy explained. “There would be a moment here, a fifteen-minutes there, a half an hour there, an afternoon, an evening, and then all the time… No tunes, nothing, [you’d] just get up and play. You have to keep it going otherwise you lose that freedom. And then the music is finished. It’s a matter of life and death. The only criterion is: Is this stuff alive or dead?” 

   It’s important to note that the 1966 release of The Avant-Garde Don Cherry & John Coltrane was actually Don’s date! He brought Coltrane in and was grateful that John had played on it. Recorded in June and July of 1960, the sessions feature Coltrane’s first recorded performance on soprano sax on “The Blessing,” and “The Invisible,” over two months before John popularized the instrument with his rendition of “My Favorite Things.” 

   The Spiritual Jazz trend of late 60’s/early seventies combined elements of Eastern tonalities, employing drones from tambura and sitar with the soul stirring melodies and dynamics of the Baptist church. As Don explained: “It’s this whole feeling of spirit playing and a feeling of bliss, and it happened in me hearing Albert Ayler play,” Don recalled.

   Drummer Sunny Murray who toured Europe with Ayler’s band in 1964 concurred: “We were getting very in tune with the spirits when the Free Jazz group was over there. We were the most spiritual band in Europe at the time,” Murray told me in a 2005 interview.

   No matter what the feeling or style, Cherry always brought something fresh to the music. As Ornette Coleman told me in 2009: “Don was a fantastic player, really, really talented. When he got to New York he flew the coop.” 

   Whether Ornette was referring to Don’s battle with hard drugs, or travelling the globe in search of new sounds, it’s hard to say. Whatever Coleman was alluding to, Cherry’s endless curiosity took him in directions his peers never considered and a few that even he couldn’t anticipate. 

   Cherry refused to be labelled a jazz musician and took great delight in walking through whatever walls the music business created to separate, segregate, and market various styles of sound. He freely collaborated, recorded and performed with everyone from experimental theater director Robert Wilson to minimalist composer Terry Riley, and poet Allen Ginsberg, playing trumpet, wooden flute and bells on his 1969 album Songs of Innocence and Experience by William Blake tuned by Allen Ginsberg in which the Beat bard intones William Blake poems. 

   True to form, Don the eternal seeker, could be heard joining the Godfather of Punk, Lou Reed on stage (barely two months after Brown Rice was originally released in the U.S.) at Santa Monica’s Civic Auditorium on November 25, 1976, for a hazy, hypnotic rendition of “Heroin.” 

   While they might seem strange bedfellows, Reed adored the intensity of Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz and played it religiously as a DJ on his college radio show. While touring behind his recent album, Rock and Roll Heart, Lou crossed paths with Don in transit at LAX in Los Angeles and invited him to sit in with the band the following night at the Anaheim Convention Center. Canadian keyboardist Michael Fonfara recalled the experience to Reed’s biographer Anthony DeCurtis, describing Don as “positively spiritual onstage… like some ghost that was floating above the ground… Lou loved him, and he loved Lou.”

   Three years later, in April 1979, Cherry returned to cut three tracks for Reed’s album The Bells. Rockers didn’t recognize it as rock, and jazz heads never gave it a chance. 

   Asked for insights into Don’s unique openness to sound, no matter its origin or style, Peter Apfelbaum suggested that Cherry’s “vision of world music really began to flower after meeting Moki [artist Monika Marianne Karlsson] and moving to Tågarp, Sweden, in the early seventies, which he saw as a protest against the Vietnam War.” 

   “Don was always traveling around the world, connecting with different cultures,” David Ornette Cherry explained. “Those records, Brown Rice and Hear & Now, were a like period of transition for him, before taking new directions, like a river splitting off, and branching out into Old and New Dreams and CoDoNa.”

   Incapable of sitting still very long (except of course while meditating) Don reunited with Coleman alumni Charlie Haden, drummer Eddie Blackwell and tenor saxophonist to create Old and New Dreams in 1976 to play their own compositions while tending the flame of Ornette Coleman’s early free jazz repertoire. At the same time Cherry formed the global (in the truest sense of the term) music trio CoDoNa, which combined ever-expanding Don’s eclectic musical vocabulary with sitarist/tabalchi (one who plays tabla) Colin Walcott and the Brazilian master percussionist Nana Vasconcelos. Both groups recorded a set of sparkling albums for the German label ECM, who were currently at their creative peak.

   “Of course, I was a fan of his music, listening to his records since I was a teenager,” said percussionist/composer/bandleader Adam Rudolph. “When we started the Mandingo Griot Society [with Gambian kora player Foday Musa Suso] in 1977, I asked Bruce Kaplan [founder and president of Flying Fish Records] if I could invite Don Cherry to play on the record. So, I called him up in Sweden and he flew to Chicago. He was such a beautiful guy. He got off the plane and came to the house and walked out to the back yard and sat under a miniature maple tree that my dad had planted, saying he needed some nature after the long flight. Then he made miso soup and started teaching me some of Ornette’s Harmolodic music. Then we made the record at Curtom, Curtis Mayfield’s studio.”

   The Mandingo Griot Society Gambian jams were far ahead of the world beat curve, combining the Foday Musa Suso’s kora (harp), with elements of R&B, jazz and funk.  

   “Don invited Hamid [Drake, drummer/percussionist] to come to Sweden to play some concerts,” Adam continued. “We stayed at the schoolhouse that Don and Moki had in Tågarp, for a few months and met a lot of musicians coming through, including percussionist Trilok Gurtu and members of Lou Reed’s band. We were playing music all the time, ‘round the clock. Then we went to Paris and played several nights with [bassist] Charlie Haden, along with a magician from Bali named Abdul. It was an incredible experience! This was my first time performing in Europe. I was like twenty-two, twenty-three. Don was a very generous spirit who gave lots of younger musicians a break. He was an un-official contemporary version of a Zen master. He didn’t teach didactically. But if you watched him and listened, it was always a learning moment, and opportunity to grow. He taught me about different levels and dynamics of listening. Don would always say there’s three qualities essential to being a musician – Listening, Imagination and Sharing.”

   “The late Don Cherry said that ‘style is the death of creativity,’” the late/great multi-instrumentalist/composer Dr. Yusef Lateef told me in the spring of 2005. “What people call style is actually a person’s persona, if you will, their inner expression.”

   Back in 1961 Dr. Lateef’s exquisite Eastern Sounds, unexpectedly expanded the parameters of modern jazz (or as the good professor preferred to call it – “Autophysiopsychic Music”) by infusing Arabic and Asian scales into a set of post-bop blues and ballads. Employing exotic folk melodies and instruments from around the globe, Yusef, along with Don gave birth to a new genre of music those clever hot dogs in the marketing department dubbed “World Beat.” 

  “Don, nor I never tried to Burger-King-ize free jazz back in 1959. First of all, there was no such category!” the ninety-one-year-old composer/multi-instrumentalist David Amram laughed. “We explored those music forms because we loved them. It’s about the beauty! Not this who shot the cow/out of tune bullshit that came after… Don was a seeker. But please don’t call him or me a pioneer because pioneers turn into cannibals the second a blizzard hits and I’m trying to be a vegetarian!” Amram laughed. 

   Peter Apfelbaum recalled first meeting Don in 1977 at the Keystone Korner, San Francisco’s legendary jazz club in North Beach from 1972 through 1983: “He was playing with the Old and New Dreams band, and I did what I always did back when I was fifteen – I went backstage after the show and said hello. Don was the friendliest one of the group and it was inspiring to talk with him. Then when my band, the Hieroglyphics Ensemble self-released our first album Pillars [1979] in an edition of 500 copies, I gave him one. It’s always strange to give someone you admire your work because you never know if they’re just trying to be nice when they say they like it. But years later Don told me he took it back to Sweden and played for everybody.

   In 1988 Peter received a commission from Jazz in the City (which later became the San Francisco Jazz Festival) and flew Don from Rome to the Bay Area to perform a piece called “Notes from the Rosetta Stone’ with his group, the Hieroglyphics Ensemble. “He rehearsed with us for a week. It was amazing to phrase with him. The notes weren’t always the same because he would often slur them. But that was part of the sound. I was aware of all the great saxophonists he’d worked with in the past and felt really honored to be in that lineage.”

   Peter and the Hieroglyphics Ensemble were a key element to one of Don’s last great musical excursions, 1990’s MultiKulti. As Apfelbaum recalled: “Don was gonna call it Experiences as the album was a reflection of his years of playing with Ed Blackwell, Nana Vasconcelos, [tubist] Bob Stewart, and [alto saxophonist] Carlos Ward as well as [mallet percussionist] Karl Berger and his wife, [vocalist] Ingrid Sertso, who ran the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, [New York where Don often taught and performed]. Allen Ginsberg sang on one track [“Rhuma Multi-Kulti”] and that’s David Ornette Cherry playing synth on ‘Birdboy.’ 

    “Hieroglyphics was a group of young creative musicians, clearly influenced by him,” Apfelbaum continued. “I think he saw his legacy in us and that’s why he moved to Bay are to play with us. We represented where Don was going. We were the continuum of what he was doing.

   “Another important connection on that record was Father [Anthony] Amde Hamilton, of the Watts Prophets, who became a priest of the Ethiopian Orthodox [Tewahedo] Church, [and had delivered the eulogy at Bob Marley’s funeral in 1981]. That’s him reading the poem on ‘MultikultiSoothsayerPlayer’ [an enchanting spoken word piece in a similar vein as “Universal Mother,” from Hear & Now].

   “Don was in search of a universal sound, that would resonate with people all over the world,” Peter imparted. “He also found musicians all over the world who improvised, that went far beyond jazz. It’s become a common thing now but he really anticipated that. He really helped paved the way for younger musicians.”

   And so it goes with everyone you speak to about the Eternal Troubadour… 

   Now back to the lineage riff for a minute… The Sonic Brotherhood of Breiwick, Simpson, Weller, Ipsen and Drobka have returned with their second offering, Awake: Volume 2, not only doing justice to Cherry’s legacy, but like Don, illuminating the soul within with their healing, enticing sonic brew.

   While Don was not large in stature, when he hoists us up on his shoulders, we experience a broader view of the world. The man had a big front yard, wherever he went.

   “I still feel him near,” David Ornette Cherry added. “He’s still here in spirit.”

   These notes are written in memory of David Ornette Cherry 

who unexpectedly joined his father in spirit on November 20, 2022, 

after performing at a tribute concert in Don’s honor earlier that night in London.

– John Kruth — NYC, Winter, ‘23


JAMIE BREIWICK – trumpet/percussion
LENARD SIMPSON – alto saxophone/percussion
CHRIS WELLER – tenor saxophone/percussion
TIM IPSEN – acoustic/electric bass/koto
DEVIN DROBKA – drums/percussion

Recorded on June 2, 2022 at Clown Horn Studios
Engineered, mixed and mastered by AARON CHRISTENSON
Photography by CALLAHAN POLZIN

(Ramuntcho Matta)
(Eternal River Publishing & Universal Songs of Polygram International Inc.)
(Eternal River Publishing & Cherry Extract Music)
(Eternal River Publishing )
(Eternal River Publishing )
(Phrase Text Music c/o Kobalt Songs Music Publishing)